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Glowacki v. Underwood Memorial Hosp.

Decided: January 10, 1994.


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Gloucester County.

Shebell, Long and Landau. The opinion of the court was delivered by Shebell, P.J.A.D.


These two appeals, which we have consolidated for purposes of this opinion, arise from jury verdicts in a slip-and-fall case which were entered following separate trials on liability and damages. We affirm both as to liability and the damages awarded to plaintiff by the jury of $771,800, plus pre-judgment and post-judgment interest as allowed by the trial Judge.

On August 20, 1984, plaintiff, while employed as a pediatric transport nurse for a Philadelphia hospital, was transporting a critically ill baby from defendant, Underwood Memorial Hospital (Underwood), in Woodbury, New Jersey. An isolette was needed for this purpose. This piece of equipment weighed approximately 200 pounds and was on wheels. Part of plaintiff's responsibilities was to wheel it out to the ambulance, lower its wheels and then lift it up, with the help of the ambulance driver, into the ambulance.

The ambulance arrived at Underwood at about 11:30 p.m. and drove to the emergency room area where it backed up to the loading platform. The back of the ambulance made contact with hard rubbery pieces which jutted out from a wooden bumper. The wooden bumper was separated from the concrete loading platform by intermittent rubber blocks, which left an open space of approximately three and one-half inches between the bumper and the dock for a substantial distance between each rubber block.

Plaintiff stepped from the ambulance directly onto the concrete platform. Although the area was lit, it was not that bright, as the lights were yellowish-orange and there were some shadows.

It took plaintiff and the doctor approximately two hours in the hospital to secure the baby, whose condition had to be stabilized before it could be transported. Plaintiff then started back to the ambulance with the baby in the isolette. At the loading platform, she and the driver began the process of lifting the isolette up into the ambulance. The distance or height to the back of the ambulance appears to have been approximately one foot.

During this process, plaintiff took a step with her right foot and then moved her left foot. This foot became wedged into the space between the wooden bumper and the concrete platform. The space was alleged by the plaintiff to be as wide as her shoe, causing the foot to become wedged beyond her ankle. Plaintiff explained that she could not see through the isolette and that when she lifted it up, her feet were actually underneath a tank on the isolette. Plaintiff had to shift her body to level out the isolette so it would not tilt in order that nothing would happen to the baby. She and the driver had to put the isolette back down on the concrete dock until plaintiff could free her foot. Plaintiff knew that she had done something to her back, but her concern was for the baby. Although she did not report the incident to Underwood, the next day at work she did tell her supervisor.

A civil engineer testified at trial as an expert on behalf of plaintiff. He acknowledged that there were no standards in the industry specifically for hospital loading docks and that no standard in the industry had been violated. He stated that standards for loading docks depended on the size of the vehicles using the docks, not the type of cargo being loaded. His opinion was that defendant's loading dock itself was not unusual and was designed to protect against damage from trucks. He distinguished the situation here because this was a "people-loading," not "cargo-loading," facility. Because those who used this dock would have to pay more attention to their patients than to their own feet, he

opined that it was unsafe to have a hole or gap in the bumper system. This could be eliminated by putting a solid rubber bumper along the face of the dock. Another alternative was to eliminate the dock altogether and install a ramp.

He measured the gap between the concrete platform and the wooden bumper to be three and one-quarter inches wide and three feet long. He testified that under OSHA standards, a floor hole was defined as anything between one inch and twelve inches. Such a hole had to be protected with a cover that was capable of supporting 200 pounds of weight. Although the OSHA standard appeared to relate only to the floor holes, plaintiff's expert interpreted the configuration here to be very much like a floor because it was a flat horizontal system on which people walked. He opined that it created an unreasonable hazard to users and a dangerous condition on the premises.

Defendant moved for a directed verdict immediately following this expert's testimony. Defendant argued that plaintiff's only claim was one of defective design and that her expert had just conceded that all design standards were met. Plaintiff pointed out that her complaint also alleged a hazardous condition on the property that created an unreasonable risk of harm to invitees. The trial Judge granted defendant's motion only as to issues of "products liability." He thereby limited plaintiff's case to the issue of whether defendant had invited people onto its premises for carrying on certain operations and whether its premises were safe for those operations.

Defendant produced a civil engineer who confirmed that there was no standard in the industry applicable to hospital bumpers. He explained that the purpose of the bumper system was to protect both the platform and vehicles from damage, and that this wooden system was very common in the 1960's. According to this expert, the rubber bumpers were designed to afford enough flexibility so that when a vehicle hit the bumper, the wood could bend and absorb the shock. He admitted that any design should consider the nature of traffic going over it. He, nevertheless,

opined that the system here did not create an unreasonable hazard of tripping or falling. Defendant's director of plant operations conceded that defendant was aware of the spaces in the bumper system, but indicated there had never been a report of an incident since it was built in 1968 or 1969.

The court charged the jury on principles of ordinary negligence and the liability of a property owner to business invitees for a dangerous condition on its property. The jury was also charged on contributory negligence and was given an ultimate outcome charge. The jury returned a verdict finding that an unsafe condition existed on defendant's platform and that defendant was negligent, which negligence was a proximate cause of plaintiff's accident. The plaintiff was found also negligent, which negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. Defendant was found eighty-five percent negligent and plaintiff was found fifteen percent negligent.

The trial on damages revealed that the thirty-eight-year-old plaintiff was an only child, never married, and lived with her parents, ages seventy-seven and seventy. Her mother's health was not good.

Plaintiff testified that when she went home following the accident, she took some Tylenol and went to bed. She awoke later in the morning feeling more achy. She went to work, but had her trainee do all of the lifting and pushing. By the end of her shift, she was sore and stiff and filed a report with the nurse at work. She had pain radiating down the back of her leg and into her knee and could not even get up from a chair.

After plaintiff, who had some prior history of back pains, got home, she felt a sharp shooting pain like none she had ever felt before. She could not sit, stand, or walk and everything hurt her. The following day, August 22, 1984, she saw her physician of more than thirty years. The doctor x-rayed plaintiff's back and prescribed a back brace for her as well as some medication. During the next ...

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